Bessie Eldreth (1996)

About the Film

Bessie Eldreth (1913-2016) was fond of saying, “Singing is my life,” and she told engaging stories not only about her singing but also about the rewards and challenges she encountered as a woman growing up and raising a family in Ashe and Watauga counties in the northwest mountainous corner of North Carolina. Eldreth was known to family for singing hundreds of old songs and telling chilling ghost stories to her children and grandchildren and known to her community as “the lady who sings in church.” She came to the attention of folklorists at Appalachian State University during the U.S. Bicentennial, when she was in her sixties, and subsequently performed for Elderhostel and university courses, at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and other local festivals, and in New York city. She is the subject of a book and several articles by Patricia Sawin of the University of North Carolina. Original documentary materials on Eldreth, including all the video shot for this project, are available in the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina. This film depicts Eldreth at home with family, worshipping and singing at Tabernacle Baptist Church, performing at the Festival for the Eno in Durham, NC, along with her granddaughter, Jean Reid, telling stories to students in an ASU course, and in conversation with Professors Patricia Sawin (UNC), Cece Conway (ASU), and Dorothy Holland (UNC). Her life illustrates both the limitations placed on a woman who felt compelled to exercise her God-given musical talents while retaining traditional respectability and the role folklorists may play in opening new venues and audiences and helping a woman performer navigate that tension.


For licensing, film rights and permissions, contact Cece Conway, Patricia Sawin, Elva Bishop, the distributor, or Folkstreams.